Six Days in Hong Kong, Part 1

My first trip to Hong Kong, armed with a HK Film Festival Press Pass, a camera, and not quite enough changes of clothing, Part One: From Chicago to Hong Kong.

I didn't realize flying had gotten so bad. First there are the seven additional layers of security you must pass through at the airport. Your luggage is taken from you, possibly never to be seen again, and then, shoes in hand, you stand with arms splayed while some guy you hardly know strokes a metal wand under your armpits. Then after a considerable wait, during which you may contemplate buying something stale from the horribly overpriced duty free shops, you board the plane. Onboard, your steward or stewardess gestures vaguely to your seat, if you're lucky, and watches with bemusement while passengers wrestle to squeeze their oversized luggage into the overhead compartment without suffering from a head injury or back pain. Then you cram into your too small seat, strap in, and sit for fifteen hours while the fight attendents attempt to kill you with horrible food and brainwash you with mentally draining television and movie programming. Once your will has been suitably weakened, they once again attempt to sell you some duty free products.

Our flight attendant was a small, sallow-faced man who affected an air precisely like one of those pissy and constantly irritated butlers you might find in a British sitcom. Every time someone asked a question, or, God forbid, pressed the call button, he would roll his eyes like a Bejing Opera warrior then sigh so loudly I thought the cabin may be depressurizing. But no, just a glass of water if you please. Why is customer service declining so rapidly on board American airlines? Is it because we all might be terrorists, you Just Never Know? I suspect the decline began long before 9/11, when their names changed from Stewardesses to Flight Attendants -- note they are not Passenger Attendants. They attend to the flight, the passengers are just so much extra luggage.

And then there are the seats. Look, Americans are among the fattest people in the world. It's a well known fact. Are the airlines pretending they don't know? Why does everyone get crammed so close together that we are forced to use each other's love handles as armrests? And for that matter, why are the smallest seats in Economy class, and the largest in First? It should be the other way around. In general, the less money you have, the poorer your nutrition, and the fatter you get. Only the wealthy typically have time and money for gym memberships and expensive diets. Let's give the folks who need it a bit more space. Please.

But forget about it. I'm going to Hong Kong. And somehow, that makes all the discomfort worthwhile.

No, it doesn't. But still, I'm going to Hong Kong.

I've seen the city hundreds of times, in countless movies, but never once set foot in that little Special Administrative Region. I hoped to see whether the city would feel familiar, or foreign; whether there will be a disconnect between the image of the city in Hong Kong cinema, and the city itself. And the ultimate event for a destination that existed for me only on celluloid until this moment: a film festival, to watch films which take place in Hong Kong, surrounded by that physical space.

But first, I had to get there.

After having an ill advised lunch of curry chicken, the stench of which filled the passenger cabin for many hours after the meal, we settled in for the first film of the trip, which was CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, a 2003 American film starring Steve Martin. It is apparently a remake of an old film of the same name from 1950 which one would hope was much better. The remake, on the other hand, is so bad that it is just the thing to suck the life right out of you at the beginning of a long flight, providing the proper mindset for your zombie-like existence for the 13 hours that follow. The gags in the film are barely amusing, with whole segments built around putting Steve Martin into mildly amusing situations. Look! There's Steve Martin hanging from a chandelier! Isn't that funny? No? Hmmm. The script is so lifeless, the characters so one dimensional, that when the inevitable near-tragedy occurs at the end of the picture (which, of course, brings the family together), the moment lacks any emotion, and the movie itself, which was barely coasting on audience goodwill up until that point, finally withers and dies. The movie is hardly worth mentioning, I only do so because it was set in my home town, Chicago.

Chicago doesn't get a lot of play in Hollywood films, so it was a bit of a surprise to see it appear right when I was leaving. Unlike Hong Kong, Chicago barely registers as a cinematic presence. It's still an event when a story takes place in Chicago, and scriptwriters typically have to pencil in a visit to one or more of the more popular places in the city (usually, that means a scene at Wrigley Field, one on the Elevated Train, and one near the Michigan Avenue bridge). CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN spares us the standard take, at least, and is instead set in Evanston, the near north suburb and home of Northwestern University.

In the film, Steve Martin's family moves in from central Illinois, and are mocked as "corn-fed country folk" by the local Evanstonians. It's a bit of a strech considering affluent Evanston is pretty much filled to the gills with beefy, corn-fed white boys who like football, a country western music station comes in loud and clear on the FM dial, and at least one bar in the area has well attended line dancing nights. On the other hand, another scene shows some of the tough kids at the school sipping their Stabucks Latte, and that's probably just about right. There are a few establishing shots of the city, and the street they live on looks very much like a typical Evanston street, in the affluent part of town, but the movie image barely represents anything even remotely real about life in Chicago. I mean, they are all wearing hand-me-down clothes, but yet he can move his family of twelve into an Evanston mansion that would cost well upwards of a million dollars on the market today. The city was just a generic backdrop. It could have been any big city, anywhere in the country, and the story would have remained the same.

Is the same true of Hong Kong movies? I don't believe so. Hong Kong movies that are set in Hong Kong reflect real issues and identies in that city. Many could not be transplanted to other cities without fundamentally changing who the characters are who inhabit the city and how they live their lives. And anyway, if there is any possibility whatsoever the location can be changed, it quickly is, rewritten to take place in Shanghai, with the hopes of getting some mainland actors and distribution rights.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN was edited for presentation on the airplane, though it easily could have used an extra 90 minutes trimmed off. The next film, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, was also slightly edited, but it was edited enough to render it meaningless. They took out the focal point of the film: Diane Keaton's nude scene. Without it, the film is nothing but a hollow shell, an empty coat with no nude body to wrap against. Even the ads selling the DVD of the film use scenes immediately prior and after her nude scene as if to remind potential buyers: "yes, we know the film is boring. But Diane Keaton gets nude!" Now, rationally, no one really wants to see her nude now. But you know, we all really did want to see her nude in ANNIE HALL, so now we're feeling a bit nostalgic and it may be thirty years too late but what the hell, let's get some closure on that long dormant desire. And you know, Diane Keaton's nude scene really is the only reason to bother seeing SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE. Because airlines are designed primarily for torture, naturally this scene was removed from their presentation, leaving us with several hours of talking heads and no payoff.

The third movie of the flight would make a nice transistion from watching American films to watching Asian films at the festival of the course of the coming week. John Woo's latest action thriller, PAYCHECK. By this time in the flight, those passengers who could took a handful of Dramamine and several shots of vodka and slept, their bodies contorted into origami-like shapes, trails of drool drizzling from their mouths onto their unlucky neighbors. The rest of us, bolt upright in our chairs, aching from head to toe, dutifully put our headphones on with the hopes that the film would either be good, and keep our attention, or so dull as to lull us to sleep. Alas, it was neither, PAYCHECK was simply mediocre. What the hell happened to John Woo?

I was recently reading the memoirs of Chang Cheh. In it, he mentions John Woo as a man who carried Cheh's vision forward and succeeded better than his mentor. John Woo wrote the introduction to the book. And time and again, I read about John Woo as a success story. I just have to ask, has any of these people seen the crap he has been making lately? John Woo the auteur director of BULLET IN THE HEAD, THE KILLER, and A BETTER TOMORROW, is dead. Long live the hack director of M:I2 and PAYCHECK. How far has Woo slid down? Even his Van Damme picture, HARD TARGET, had more style and creativity than PAYCHECK. Doesn't he have friends who know him well enough to take him aside and say, "John -- look at what you are making, here, man. You used to do better. Take a vacation or something, go back to Hong Kong, you need revitalization."

Take the opening scenes of PAYCHECK. In it, Ben Affleck, who we are expected to believe is a brilliant software and hardware engineer, builds a new holographic computer monitor. He does so by standing in front of various holographic projections of objects and screens and moves them around with a pen. It's so shamelessly derivative of Steven Spielburg's Philip K. Dick movie, MINORITY REPORT, that I almost gasped outloud. Clearly, when Woo was told he would be directing a movie based on a short story by PKD, he went directly to the source -- no, not the book, he watched the most recent other movie based on a short story by PKD. As a result, PAYCHECK plays like a knock-off of MINORITY REPORT as produced by Roger Corman.

And take again his obsession with doves. Sure, they were perfect for THE KILLER -- especially since the last shootout took place in a church, and the dove represents the holy ghost. But ever since then, he can't stop including them. It's as if he's forgotten what they were there for in the first place. The appearance of the dove in PAYCHECK is the worst yet, a laugh-out-loud moment on a plane full of tired, uncomfortable people wondering if they have food poisoning, but who still had the energy to recognize lame when they see it. As if to make it even more absurd, the bird appears to be CGI generated. Again, doesn't he have friends who can tell him how stupid this is? Other Hong Kong filmmakers understand the absurdity, from Stephen Chow's KING OF COMEDY to Tsui Hark's TIME AND TIDE, the dove symbolism is just a joke.

John Woo could be the biggest thing in Hong Kong. Instead, he chose to be a hack director of crappy action films in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Johnnie To is at the top of the heap back in HK, reinventing himself year after year, setting trends and pushing Hong Kong cinema to follow his lead. At one time, other filmmakers looked to Woo for that kind of inspiration. Now, if they look at all, it is to blandly declare "Woo has made it." and then to add, for clarification, "He makes big paychecks for each of his films." If it's all about the money, then sure, Woo has made it. But if filmmaking is an art, he has lost his way.

As the tired, soulless film reached its conclusion, I started suddenly to want it to go on longer. Perhaps, if it was still playing by the time we reached Hong Kong, I would have somehow brought Woo back to his roots, back to Hong Kong, in spirit if not in person. Alas, Woo bailed somewhere over Siberia. At least he will be safe from his critics there.

[Originally published at the now defunct HK Entertainment News in Review]

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 22, 2007.

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